Analysis: Verifiable speed and other intriguing elements that shaped Notre Dame's 2020 class
SOUTH BEND — The new, more pragmatic Brian Kelly no longer prattles on for over an hour, with a PowerPoint presentation at his back, about the greatness of the individuals who have just officially joined next year’s Notre Dame football roster, by virtue of their signatures.
Gone too, with the advent of still relatively new National Signing Day in mid-December, are the choreographed phone calls from recruits whose desire and commitment to coming to ND just happen to fall within the bounds of the elongated Kelly hyperbole-fest.
Frankly, it’s both more authentic and interesting this way.
Wednesday’s question-driven media meeting with the 10th-year head football coach and recruiting coordinator Brian Polian was about getting the backstories, the trends, the dynamics that went into shaping the 2020 class of 18 high school prospects and Ohio State grad transfer safety Isaiah Pryor.
Including and beyond attracting some of the highest-rated offensive prospects of the Kelly Era, here are some of the most intriguing elements about the class itself and the process of putting it together.
• Stars and class ranking vs. fit and reality, and why verifiable speed ties the two worlds together.
Polian hears it too, that teams which regularly get to the College Football Playoff tend to be the schools with lots of five-star and high-four-star individual prospects and top-five team class recruiting rankings from places like Rivals.com and 247Sports.com.
“I don’t think it’s a leap to say the best players will get you into the playoff. That’s not rocket science,” Polian said on Wednesday’s Weekday SportsBeat radio show on WSBT. “But the reality is there is a portion of the recruiting pool that is unavailable to us.
“Fans can’t have it both ways. You can’t talk about what a great school Notre Dame is and we don’t function like some other places function, and then on Signing Day be upset when part of the recruiting pool is not available to your university.
“If there’s a five-star out there that fits Notre Dame and meets our academic requirements, we’re going to kill ourselves to try to get that guy here. But we also have to develop and we also have to find guys that fit here and develop them throughout their careers, and that’s the fine line that we walk.”
It’s about hit rate. Even if you get a five-star prospect through the admissions process, but he can’t function in the classroom and is spooked by a culture of uncompromising demands outside of football, they’re not going to last.
So fit isn’t an excuse. It’s a necessary part of the process.
That ND is now using “verifiable speed” as its newest evaluative tool makes those two worlds more compatible.
It exposes the overrated five-star and overlooked three-star recruit.
“If you look at how many guys go to the (NFL Scouting) Combine and can actually run in the low 4.4’s (in the 40-yard dash), there’s not very many of them,” Polian said. “But when we talk to high school coaches, there’s millions across the country.”
ND’s 30-3 College Football Playoff semifinal loss to eventual national champ Clemson last December clearly illustrated what kinds of changes the Irish needed to make in prioritizing recruiting. Just getting to the playoff and amassing a 32-6 mark over the past three seasons helped open the door to those types of players on the high end of the speed spectrum that weren’t necessarily as open-minded before.
How that looks a year later?
“You might find an incredible high school player that might be a pretty good college player,” Polian said. “But if we want to compete for a championship, that’s one place where you cannot compromise. You have to be able to run.
“It was just an acknowledgement that if you want to compete in the top 10 in the country, you can’t compromise on speed. If we’re going to compete on an elite level, we’ve got to run to a certain threshold.”
Recruiting ratings, individual and team, have been proven over and over to be an inexact science. But there’s much less inexact about a stopwatch, when placed against the context of a prospect’s high school film.
• Freshman running back Chris Tyree joins a position group with potentially six returnees, and why those numbers shouldn’t be daunting.
The 5-foot-10, 185-pound running back from Chester, Va., has a verified time of 4.37 in the 40, and he’s been able to replicate it at a number of national high school football camps/events.
That’s the kind of speed that can turn a 12-yard run by another back on the ND roster into a 70-yard TD run.
Which is why Polian doesn’t want Tyree to look at ND’s Camping World Bowl depth chart and tamp down his expectations and aspirations as a freshman based on the number of players that could be competing for playing time with him.
“There was a time,” Polian said, “when a lot of freshmen came in and said, ‘Well, the assumption is I’m going to redshirt, so I’m just going to come in and lay low and do my thing and stay out of the way and my time will come.’
“I think (freshman safety) Kyle Hamilton came in with the thought, ‘I’m going to play.’ And our belief is that Chris and a lot of other guys in this class are thinking. ‘I’m going to come in and play, and I’m going to challenge for that.’
“Nobody ever promises a freshman playing time. If you promise a freshman playing time, you’re lying to them, because ultimately our livelihoods depend on this, and we’re going to put the best 22 out there, no matter who they are.
“The one thing you can promise them is the opportunity, and coach Kelly has shown, if you’re a freshman and you can help us win, then he will put you out there. And it truly is a merit-ocracy. You’ll get what you earn. I think our freshmen know that.”
• The early enrollee deluge continues, and it actually could have been larger.
In January of 2006, running back James Aldridge, offensive lineman Chris Stewart and wide receiver George West became the first football early enrollees at Notre Dame, at least in modern times — and thereby coaxed Notre Dame’s recruiting into more modern times in at least one facet.
In the 11 recruiting cycles that followed through 2017, there had never been more than five players in a given year who started their careers early with January enrollment and an extra spring practice as part of their protracted freshman year.
In the last three cycles there have been 26 combined, with no fewer than seven in any of those. The number for 2020, including the first grad transfer of the Kelly Era who can get a head start in the spring, is nine.
Polian said not one of the nine needed to be talked into it.
“We (actually) have to slow some guys down,” Polian said. “Coming here at this semester is not an easy thing. And only certain guys can handle it. We feel a debt to the university in that they, every year, continue to grow more and more comfortable with this.”
Besides Pryor, the other eight early enrollees are cornerbacks Caleb Offord and Ramon Henderson, defensive ends Alex Ehrensberger and Jordan Botelho, defensive tackle Riley Mills, wide receivers Jay Brunelle and Xavier Watts, and quarterback Drew Pyne.
• Why no linebackers in the class was by design and made sense.
Ten of the 13 linebackers/rovers on Notre Dame’s roster have freshman or sophomore status. After watching them practice in August training camp, the notion of skipping that position group in the 2020 recruiting cycle went from enticing to absolute, especially considering this class was tight on numbers.
“All the way to last Jan. 1, we went into the class saying, ‘If we take a linebacker, it’s got to be an absolute difference-maker, and there’s a pretty good chance we won’t, just because the numbers told us that,’’’ Polian said. “Everybody understood.”
By taking raw talent Marist Liufau from Kalihi, Hawaii, last cycle and committing to redshirt him, Polian and Kelly felt that was the equivalent of saving a spot in the 2020 cycle for a linebacker. And Liufau is on a developmental tract, Polian said, to become a difference-maker in the position group.
“I think when it’s all said and done, we’re going to be really excited about that decision,” he said of the 6-2, 213-pounder. “It was just the numbers told us that it was probably not in the program’s best interests to keep adding linebackers when we had needs at other positions on defense.”
• What the payoff of the investment in German Alexander Ehrensberger might look like.
Going to Dusseldorf Germany to recruit defensive end Alexander Ehrensberger was actually roughly 100 miles closer than the air distance to woo the other defensive end in the class, Jordan Botelho of Honolulu.
“It was easier too,” Brian Kelly said comparing the logistics of the two trips.
The 6-3, 230-pound Botelho’s possible five-star upside, though, against proven competition was easier to explain in the context of why go that far away from campus. For the 6-7, 240-pound Ehrensberger, it took a lot more projection.
“Two things: Length, and I think just his ability to change direction,” Kelly said of the traits that caught the coaching staff’s collective eye. “So where that end product would be, you’ve seen the development of our defensive line, where it came in and where it is.
“We want to continue to look toward that model, where those guys can be looked at as elite players as they develop. We can see him as an elite player as he develops in the program. So for us to invest all of that time, we have to be able to see him develop in our program as an elite player down the road. And 6-7 with really good foot agility and quickness, that stands out early on.”
But it comes with a caveat.
“This does not mean we are going to turn into an international juggernaut in the recruiting world,’’Kelly said. “But it does mean that we won’t have our blinders on when it comes to recruiting. We will search and find the best fits for our football program wherever they may be.”